The ability to conceptualize the world in spatial terms has been strongly linked to success in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) related careers. A longitudinal study published in 2009 (Wai, 2009) details 50 years of research that solidifies this relationship. It showed that students with high spatial
ability tended to choose STEM related careers at a very high rate. As with many intellectual abilities, the perception that spatial ability is a fixed set of mental attributes has been overturned. Several studies have shown that a student’s spatial ability can be cultivated through practice and meaningful application (Lee, 2009; Lubinski, 2010; Levine, 2005; Sorby, 2006) . However, spatial thinking has been largely ignored by public education with a focus on verbally or lecture based instruction being the norm. When spatial thinking is discussed, it is often maligned as a skill set relegated to trades and industries (i.e. carpentry, plumbing, welding, masonry, automotive repair) and not worthy of intellectual pursuit. However, some of the best minds of our time can trace their successes to the application spatial thinking. Albert Einstein once said that “The words or the language, as they are written or spoken, do not seem to play any role in my mechanisms of thought” and later concluding that his thoughts “are more or less clear images.” Nikola Tesla, a dynamic inventor who created the basis for alternating current, was rumored to be able to mentally build his inventions and visualize the working parts (Chandrasekhar, 2006). The reality of DNA’s double helix could not have been conceptualized except for the spatial cognition of Watson and Crick. However, as can be deduced from the examples given, there is a perception that ability to conceive of objects and their relationships in space is a white male dominated trait. This then begs the question of whether underrepresented populations (female, African-American, and Hispanic) in the STEM fields possess the capacity for spatial thinking and if so, what hinders its expression?
Several recent studies have concluded that the limiting factor influencing success in STEM programs regardless of sub-group is a lack of access to spatially related activities (Ault, 2010; Dixon 1995; Sorby 2012; Study 2004). Given the opportunity to think spatially, underrepresented populations perform as well as majority populations. It can therefore be speculated that the achievement gap cannot be overcome until the opportunity gap is overcome.
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